Catalunya/ Catalonia. Politics in the 19th-Century. Overview.
The end of the 18th century was a difficult time for Catalonia. In 1793, Spain was at war with post-revolutionary France and large parts of Catalonia (which shares a common border with France) were occupied by French soldiers. In 1795, Spain and France signed a peace treaty.
In 1796, Spain allied itself with the French against the English; the result was a serious economic setback for Catalan interests. The English immediately blockaded Cadiz, Barcelona and South American ports, which caused a commercial collapse.
Unemployment suddenly rose, soup kitchens were set up and there were bread riots in the streets. Catalans reacted angrily against the French blaming them for the situation; some even called for war against the French.
The beginning of the 19th century was equally difficult, with two events having a profound effect on Catalonia: 1. the Peninsular War (known in Spain as the War of Independence), and 2. the Constitution of 1812.
1. The Peninsular War.
The Peninsular War was fought on Spanish and Portuguese soil between France and the allied forces of England, Portugal and Spain from 1808 to 1814. Initially France’s objective –under its emperor Napoleon Bonaparte– was to cross Spain and defeat England’s ally, Portugal.
However, once this was achieved the French remained, ostensibly in order to confront a possible invasion by the English. But it soon became evident that Napoleon had other plans, especially when he unilaterally installed his older brother, Joseph, on the Spanish throne (in 1808). Spain was now an occupied country, with a French king.
For Napoleon, Catalunya was an especially desirable prize. With its geographical proximity to France, its historical and linguistic connection with Languedoc (southern France), and its strained relationship with Castile, Catalunya was –Napoleon believed— a weak link in Spain’s unity.
He first appealed to Catalans by allowing an independent Catalan republic, and encouraging the public use of their language. In April 1810, a Barcelona paper –el Diario de Barcelona— founded in 1792 and published in Castilian, appeared in Catalan and was now pointedly called Diari del Govern de Catalunya y Barcelona. A month later, it came out in Catalan and French, and occasionally in French and Castilian.
However, Napoleon’s overtures backfired. The publication of a Catalan newspaper helped revitalise the language which in turn lead to nationalistic awareness. At the same time, the French marshal in charge of Catalunya overplayed his hand when he announced that, thanks to Napoleon, “The fatherland of Catalunya is to be reborn from its ashes… Napoleon the Great will give you a new existence.” (Hughes 206).
He then made matters worse by reminding the Catalans that they had been protected by France for years in the 1640s, and concluded by calling them “the French of Spain!” (Hughes 206) The Catalans are nothing if not Catalans, and they resisted French occupation as fiercely and with the same determination as the rest of Spain, especially in the countryside which was less easily controlled than the cities. As in other parts of Spain, a junta (committee) was formed to organise opposition to the French.
By the end of 1813, French occupation of Spain was over. Following the defeat of French forces at Vitoria in June 1813, King Joseph fled Spain. What remained now was the return of Ferdinand VII, El Deseado (“The Desired One”) and legitimate king of Spain, held under house arrest by Napoleon in Valançay, France.
2. Constitution of 1812.
During the course of the Peninsular War a meeting of the Cortes (Parliament) –made up of delegates from various regions– had convened in Cádiz to determine how Spain should be ruled in the absence of Ferdinand VII. In 1812, the meeting produced a document that had a profound effect on the political and social life of Spaniards throughout the 19th century: Spain’s first Constitution.
The 1812 Constitution was a liberal (for the times) document which declared the sovereign right of the Nation to establish the basic laws of the land. But for Catalunya, the Constitution was a disappointment because it failed to recognise Catalunya’s historic regional privileges, it promulgated one law for the whole country, and a centralised administration and tax system.
Members of the Catalan junta argued, to no avail, that: “Catalunya must not only keep its present rights and privileges, but also recover those which it enjoyed at the time when the august house of Austria (i.e. the Hapsburgs, who ruled from 1520 to 1700) occupied the Spanish throne” (Fernandez-Armesto 166). The Constitution of 1812, then, did not liberate Catalonia from Madrid’s grip and the region received no special status. Predictably, tension between Madrid and Catalunya persisted throughout the 19th century.
Castile’s vision of a unified and centralised country was fundamental to Madrid’s political agenda. In 1835, Castilian concerns over disunity were succinctly articulated in Cortes by Antonio Alcalá Galiano, a moderate, liberal politician: “One of the principal objectives which we must set ourselves is to make of the Spanish nation one nation, which it is not today and has never yet been” (The Spanish World 245).
However, the political turbulence of the 19th century constantly undermined Spain’s stability and Castile’s attempt to make Spain “one nation.” In the first seventy five years, there were wild struggles between liberals and conservatives, two civil wars (the Carlist Wars of 1833-39, 1870-75), several military coups, a deposed queen (1868), a foreign monarch from Italy (1870-73) and a failed republic (1873-74).
The republic reflected in many ways the frustration of Spaniards, especially Catalans, with the monarchy and the centralism it represented. However, the republic proved to be no more stable than previous governments, lasting only one year and running through four presidents, three of them Catalans.
If Catalans were frustrated with Madrid, so too was Madrid frustrated with Catalonia. The press sharpened their knives against Catalans in the government. In April 1873, the Madrid daily, El Eco de España wrote: “With the advent of the Republic, Spain has become the patrimony of Catalunya. The Prime Minister is Catalan. The Minister of the Interior is a Catalan. The Minister of Finance is a Catalan. Of the forty-nine provincial governments, thirty-two are headed by Catalans…” (Balcells 31).
It goes on: Due to a protectionist policy, which is fatal to the other provinces, almost all the products used are Catalan. And this happens while Catalunya sends out the federalist byword, while it wishes to deprive Madrid of its status as capital, while it grows and prospers at the expense of all Spain (Ramón Resina 27). Another newspaper, La Política, angrily wrote that Spain was “a country conquered by Catalunya” (Ferret 269)
The return of the monarchy in 1875 heralded the period known as the Restoration. It signaled, too, the return of centralism and Castilian dominance. By this time, however, Catalonia’s political dissatisfaction with Castile’s control was reinforced by two other factors: 1) its commercial and industrial dominance in Spain’s economy, and 2) a cultural rebirth (Renaixenca).
Catalonia had a commercial history going well back into the Middle Ages. Its ports, especially Barcelona, were trade gateways to the Mediterranean and, from the mid 18th century, to the Atlantic as well. It was a long-established entrepreneurial society open to new ideas.
So, when the industrial revolution took off in England in the late 18th century, Catalunya was equipped to benefit from the new advances. As early as 1833, steam driven looms were introduced into Barcelona and by the 1850s “Catalonia’s cotton industry was the third in Europe, after England and France” (Eaude 76).
Still, despite their dominance, Catalan businessmen and industrialists felt constantly frustrated by what they considered to be Madrid’s incompetence and disregard for their concerns, especially the protectionism they sought for their products when Madrid’s preferred free trade.
Indeed, so strong were the pressures exerted on Madrid that Prime Minister Cánovas eventually gave way and abandoned free trade in 1891. This move ensured the “loyalty” of the industrialists (many of whom also received noble titles!), but it was the kind of muscle-flexing that made many Spaniards accuse Catalonia of being self-centred, with little concern for the national interest. (The accusations continued until the explosion of the Civil War in 1936, after which Catalan complaints were suppressed by the Franco regime. Today, however, the same tensions exist and the same accusations are heard.)
2. The Renaixença was a rediscovery of Catalonia’s cultural heritage –its folk songs, art, architecture, even the countryside– and a reaffirmation of its language as a rich, vibrant and flexible vehicle of communication. Writing in their own language, Catalans forged an identity that liberated them culturally from the dominance of Castile and gave them a vital tool in their push towards recognition of Catalonia as a distinct society.
Catalonia’s push towards some form of recognition resulted in an important memorandum sent to the king, Alfonso XII, by a group of Catalans in 1885. The memorandum, known as the Memorial dels Greuges (Petition of Grievances), was the first document to outline Catalan aspirations as well as complaints. But although it was an important step towards a Catalan political voice it did not advocate autonomy or separation or independence but regional recognition.
A much more demanding document appeared in 1892 after a convention held in the inland town of Manresa. Organised by a young lawyer, Enric Prat de la Riba (1870-1917), the Bases de Manresa (as the document is called) argued that Catalunya was a nation rather than a region, and that as a nation it should have its own parliament, laws, police and its language should be official within the region.
The Bases de Manresa, in effect, sought home rule or autonomy for Catalonia, leaving the central government to attend only to defence, foreign relations and interregional matters.
The complex political picture in Spain in the last twenty five years of the 19th century was further complicated by the appearance of two working class movements: socialism and anarchism.
Both gave voice to those who lived in slums and worked in deplorable conditions in industrial urban centres, especially in Catalunya and particularly in Barcelona. A socialist party, the Partido socialista obrero espanol (PSOE, still active in Spanish politics) was founded in Madrid in 1879, and nine years later its union affiliate, the Union General de Trabajadores (UGT)** was established in Barcelona.
At about the same time, Barcelona became a magnet for anarchist activity. Fulfilling the revolutionary maxim “propaganda by deed,” anarchist bombs resulting in death exploded in Barcelona in 1891, 1893 and 1896.
Both socialists and anarchists fed off worker discontent and factory owners’ intransigence, especially the anarchists who took the lead in violent confrontation. Seeking a solution to worker radicalism, many owners –inspired by Enric Plat de la Riba’s concept of industry as a “family”— built workers’ “colonies” along the Ter and Llobregat rivers, north and west of Barcelona.
Both fast flowing rivers, they were ideal for driving turbines essential for the mills. Removed from corrupt Barcelona, the workers were obliged to accept religious education in return for jobs and homes. It really amounted to a form of slavery that ensured a docile and cheap work force, and satisfied owners that they were doing good deeds.
In the 1890s, Catholic Workers’ Circles were also formed to defuse worker radicalism. Headed by the Jesuit priest, Antoni Vincent, and financed by the second Marquis of Comillas, the project had some success with the conservative peasantry but fizzled in Barcelona. Most urban workers were anticlerical and, to them, the church was a class enemy in bed with the owners, the very powers that sought to control them.
The 19th century ended with a political bang! In 1898, Spain lost the last of its overseas colonies –Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines— in a disastrous war with the United States.
The loss, especially of Cuba, had a profound impact on Catalonia since Catalan business had invested heavily in the island. What better reason, argued Catalanists, for a Catalan voice in Madrid itself to defend the region’s interests.
That opportunity came in 1901 with the creation of the Lliga Regionalista, a conservative coalition headed by Prat de la Riba. In the general elections of the same year, the Lliga sent four members to Madrid, a first and psychologically significant step towards nationalist aspirations.
Balcells, Albert Catalan Nationalism London 1996
Eaude, Michael Catalonia: A Cultural History Oxford 2008
Elliott, J. H. The Spanish World London 1991
Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe Barcelona: A Thousand Years of the City’s Past Oxford 1992
Ferret, Antoni Compendi d’Historia de Catalunya 6th ed. Barcelona 1984
Hughes, Robert Barcelona New York 1992
Reguant, Montserrat Etapas reinvindicativas de la teoria nacional catalana New York 1997
Resina, Joan Ramon Barcelona’s Vocation of Modernity: Rise and Decline of an Urban Image Stanford 2008
Shubert, Adrian A Social History of Modern Spain London 1990